Trump 2016 Returns, This Time as Nostalgia Act

How do you keep a TV serial going past its fourth season?

You reinvent, or you repeat. You find a new story, or you bring back old reliable villains who seemed to have been written off.

The Donald J. Trump re-election kickoff rally Tuesday, at the Amway Center in Orlando, was an attempt to recreate the media-dominating phenomenon of four years ago. Like many an ongoing series later in its run, it was a bigger-budget operation, the production more lavish, the set physically larger.

But, filled with callbacks, fan favorites and references to moments from its first season, it was more rerun than re-imagination.

Mr. Trump’s 2016-campaign announcement, four years ago, was full of imagery to remind people of his long celebrity career. He was backed by the pink marble of Trump Tower, the site of so many of his ’80s photo shoots; he glided down its escalator in an image familiar from “The Apprentice.”

[More on President Trump’s re-election kickoff.]

Mr. Trump’s 2020 election announcement, on the other hand, was staged to remind people of the 2016 campaign: his rally tour, all those packed, howling arenas that showcased him in repeated news images as the raging, preening ringmaster in a circus of furious, fervent, sometimes violent energy.

The result was a speech that was simultaneously filled with grievance — his own and his audience’s — and oddly retrospective. For every boast about job creation or judge appointments, there were more old scores to resettle. The president seemed to enjoy reminiscing about the 2016 campaign more than readying the 2020 campaign.

“Do you remember this?” he asked the crowd. “They called us deplorables.” There was a lot of do-you-remember-ing on Tuesday. Remember when they said we’d lose and we won? Remember “Build That Wall”? Remember “Crooked Hillary”?

The crowd did remember, and proved it, loudly. “Lock her up!” “CNN sucks!” All the hit singles of yesteryear. They had the albums, and they knew the lyrics.

The whole spectacle, simultaneously seething and festival-like, felt less like a news event than a historical re-enactment — even if you don’t count the guy in the Abraham Lincoln costume that Fox News repeatedly cut to.

It was like old times. But not just like.

Notably — where cable-news producers would in 2016 show Mr. Trump’s empty podium as he prepared to speak — only Fox among the three major news channels carried his hour-and-a-half speech from beginning to end. CNN aired the first five minutes, roughly, before cutting away during a tirade targeting the assembled press pool, another 2016 chestnut.

And then there was the matter of the protagonist’s catchphrase. (Not “You’re fired!” — though Mr. Trump also briefly reprised that, to cheers.)

The president spent a bizarre, reality-show-like meta digression polling the audience on his new campaign slogan, “Keep America Great,” whose graphics in the arena clashed visually and semantically with the “Make America Great Again” caps in the crowd. The rally took place in Schrödinger’s America, which was simultaneously Great and not Great.

Mr. Trump asked his supporters to “let me hear by your cheers what you like”: the new branding or the old. There was sadly no applause-o-meter, but the candidate declared his new slogan the winner.

The campaign faces questions familiar to most meteoric TV phenomena. How do you please the original fans while replenishing them? How do you roll out new material and top yourself? How do you keep the momentum without burning people out?

The president has seen before how that can go south. The cover-star Donald Trump of the 1980s gave way to the self-parodic Donald Trump of the 1990s; the reality-sensation Donald Trump of “The Apprentice,” after its initial ratings cooled, became the diminished Donald Trump of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

It might be concerning, then, that the ratings for Mr. Trump’s ABC interview Sunday were anemic, compared with his eyeball-grabbing TV dominance in the 2016 campaign and early in his presidency.

Am I connecting Nielsen ratings with political power? No. But I am saying that, if I were Donald Trump, I totally would. (Even at his own rally, he referenced “the Academy Awards, before it went political and their ratings went down the tubes.”)

Mr. Trump is caught between an audience that — in Florida, by the roaring thousands — rewards him passionately for playing the hits, and another that is voting (at least with its remotes) as if it’s seen this story before. In his nostalgic kickoff, Mr. Trump went with his old fandom. After all his talk of rebranding, he closed his speech with “Make America Great Again.”

Of course, Mr. Trump’s first campaign — as he also reminded his audience — was underestimated. And it’s a long time until November 2020, plenty of time for more audience polling and slogan testing. (“2 America 2 Great”?) But this time, President Trump chose the reliable, gratifying love of the audience in front of him, which was more than glad to Make America 2016 Again.

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